Friday, April 08, 2005

Religion as law…Opinion as fact
It has been some years since I lived in America. In all that time, I have been unwilling and incapable of becoming an expatriate in the sense of how I have seen it lived by many expatriates: as knee-jerk anti-Americanism. When listening to their anti-American rants, I have often felt that it is much easier to count the sins of a nation/people than its virtues. Not that I want to close my eyes to the mistakes, injustices, and even evils of my nation/people, no not that. I just cannot close my eyes to its virtues. I cannot close my eyes to the idea of America as an unfinished project rather that as something complete, dead, and defined. As a child I struggled with conflicting views of America: one that saw America through the eyes of the Viet Nam war and one that saw America through the eyes of my immigrant relatives. I struggled to reconcile these conflicting views of America and was able to. As a result, my understanding of America is complex. I can never relinquish my American identity. It is not an identity that I shrink from. This does not mean that I am always proud of it or uncritical of it. No. It means that it is mine, and it is complex, and I will not disown it. I have been proud and amused by the way American ingenuity is so touted by us. I guess the real ingenuity is giving so many of the world's population opportunities to invent, work, and study. That has been our true ingenuity.

That said, I feel that my identity is under attack. Will my Americanism become a relic? Will people find me out of date, quaint even? Are free press, free speech, immigration, religious freedom, and the separation of church and state all coming under attack?

I have a friend here in Iran who is brilliant in his field but cannot complete his studies here because somebody (or bodies) has determined that he is not Islamic enough. Iran is a country that has shown itself willing to lose most of its best and brightest to the rest of the world: all in the name of ideology. America, having become wildly paranoid since 9/11, will no longer issue visas to these people. Trust me, they will go elsewhere. When they do go elsewhere, America will suffer.

My religion is a minority religion in both the US and in Iran. I do not want to live under the religious rule of either. I do not want them to live under the rules of my religion either. Why would I? When religions rule, they set themselves up as superior to civil law and other religious beliefs. Many Muslims believe that they should only do business with other Muslims. Many Christians believe the same. (To be fair, other peoples and religions believe the same, but I am only addressing the dominant religions of America and Iran.) This is how they interpret their religious mandate in the world. Disrespecting the wishes and even the legal protections of others is acceptable under religious rule because the ruling interpretation of God's word is more important than anything else. And that is key: interpretation. Law is always subject to interpretation. Proponents of religious law, however, can always claim that God is on their side which essentially means that you must bow to God's word. The ruling interpretation of God's word often needs to combine their interpretation with violence in order to enforce their ideas. After all, violence is acceptable with God on your side. We've all seen it.

When I was nine or ten, I heard a story from the Talmud about a group of Rabbis arguing about a law. One of the Rabbis argued that God was on his side and that he could prove that by performing a series of small miracles. None of the miracles was enough to convince the other Rabbis that their reasoning was incorrect and that they should change their opinion so that it was in alignment with the opinion of the Rabbi who had God on his side. In the end, God approves of their dissent. God says, "The Law is not in heaven."

Law is subject to change and interpretation.

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